Archive for April, 2012

Samoa, Matafa’a, April 17, 2012, canoes

Jon Ross on Apr 18th 2012




Matafa’a, Samoa, April 17, 2012

The canoes are done!

Sixteen beautiful hand-carved works of art.

Now all the kids of the village can get to school in Falese’ela across Lefaga Bay, and the parents can paddle across to the bus stop if they need to go to Apia for work or for supplies.

Once the canoes were carved and finished it was pretty quick work to attach the outriggers and paint them.

Check out Tuilagi’s shirt and then guess who chose the colors for the boats.

The MicroAid stencil was made using old X-rays.  Tuilagi’s brother-in-law, Filaniko, knows a doctor at the hospital in Apia, so he was able to get them for free.

The MicroAid fleet in dry dock.  Some of the numbers might not be quite right.  (I kinda like it better that way.)

The dedication celebration was a big day for the village.

High chiefs, honored guests, and all the village came out for the ribbon cutting by Aga, Rev. Fepai’s wife.

The christening with a coconut by the retired Rev. Amiga.

Tuilagui made a beautiful speech thanking us—the MicroAid donors—and everyone who worked so tirelessly on the project… so did I, but, alas, I didn’t hand my camera to anyone to photograph it..

After the formalities, all the kids piled into the canoes for a patriotic test drive across the bay and a race back to the village.

As the party wound down, families paddled home in their new vehicles. You could tell the pride of ownership and see them reveling in that new-canoe smell.

One downside: there will now be rush-hour traffic as everyone tries to get to school and work on time.  The good news is that all the families will qualify for the canoe-pool lane.

To see a photo recap of the canoe-building process, please go to “Completed Projects.”

Thanks for all the support.


Filed in Samoa Projects | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, April 17, 2012, canoes

Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 18th 2012


Happy post-Easter.  Here in Samoa it’s an all-weekend holiday of church-going and pageants by the children.  Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday—no work, but events, food, church, and more food.

Living in the village for so long has enabled me to see yet another layer of the culture and aspects of a small community, as individual personalities become apparent, and people start really talking to me. (Trying to, anyway.)

Because the church is so important in the community, I go to church on Sunday.  My palagi clothes were messing up their coordinated costumes, so they found some extra duds for me.  When in rome…  (That’s an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo shirt, by the way.  Where they got it I have no idea.)

Also, the chief council has decided to bestow a title on me, I will be a matai in this village—which basically means I can come and go as I please, have a place to sleep and food to eat, have a say in village decisions (I wonder if I can Skype into the to’onai :0)  ) and can order “untitled” people around—which I  do anyway  :0) , not to mention always get a table at the best restaurants without a reservation, and VIP access to the disco.

And, a new baby was named after me.  (Jon Ross and cousin, Lagi, below.)  Go figure.

Filed in Samoa Travel Log | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 18th 2012




It turns out that receiving a chief title, becoming a matai, is a much bigger deal than I thought.  If you do not inherit your title, it takes years of community service before they even consider bestowing one on you.  In fact, many Samoans are angry that Prince Charles received a title on a recent visit because he hadn’t really done anything for the country.

Well, luckily, the village council unanimously agreed to make me a chief.  Actually, they decided on “high chief,” which puts me above most of them, and just below only two or three others in the village.  My name, Tupua Tanu Samoa (“Tupua”), is one of the most revered in all of Samoa.

The ceremony itself is like graduation, prom, and bar mitzvah all in one—but without the commemorative yarmulkes.  There are different stages throughout the afternoon, many traditions and rituals (yes, including drinking ava—“kava”), and three costume changes, speeches, eating, dancing, and gifts—from them to me, and from me to them.

It was a little frenetic getting ready—putting on the garb, getting oiled, and entering the fale—because we had had the canoe dedication earlier in the morning.  Here’s what it was like:

Tuilagi helps me put on the special undergarments, which include my surf trunks and a “seat belt,” because he says that, during the dancing, the women might try to rip off my lavalava.

He hustles me from my room into the preparation hall and the first thing that happens is I am slathered in coconut oil by some young women.

Then, the matrons of the village—wives of the other matai—dress me in a fine-matt skirt, flowing lavalava, flower ula (necklace) and headdress.

All the women seem to be enjoying the spectacle of me in the garb.

When I arrive at the community fale with my entourage, everyone is already seated: high chiefs, retired reverends, honored guests, ava servers—and behind them, “untitled” people.

There are many speeches directed at me, and formal monologues directed at no one in particular.

An attendant collects ava sticks from the other high chiefs and presents them to me, then we all drink ava.

After some more speeches comes the food.  You guessed it: taro, palusami, and breadfruit for me, but chicken, fish, pork, and other meaty specialties for the others.

Next, I am downloaded of the major regalia—made a little more comfortable—and the presentation of gifts begins.

Ulas, lavalavas, carved miniature canoes (one from an actual tree we cut down), hand-sewn “aloha” shirts, and other offerings from the villagers.  Most gifts are for me, but some are for my parents—who, it is assumed in this culture, are responsible for all my actions. (How ‘bout in ours?)

As I am receiving the gifts, one of the other chiefs—someone I don’t really know that well—gets up and goes outside and starts shouting at the top of his lungs out over the bay.  It’s almost like Tourettes.  No one pays any attention, though.  I think, Maybe this guy really doesn’t want me to be a matai and he is expressing his displeasure.  Later, Tuilagi explains that it is part of the ceremony and that he was announcing to the other villages, the world, and the universe that there is a new matai in Matafa’a: Tupua Tanu Samoa!

Finally, the music starts and the dancing begins.  First the women, who get me up and moving, then some of the younger “untitled” men.  Although no one rips off my lavalava, or throws me in the bay, things get fun and everyone has a great time with me… Or everyone has a great time making fun of me.

The next day at the to’onai (the chiefs’ lunch), my seating assignment has changed—now, instead of sitting along the side with the other regular chiefs, I sit at the foot of the fale—directly across from Rev. Fepai—with the two other high chiefs.  I really understand my new status when I am third to be served food.

Most people in the village now call me Tupua, and, in kind of sad twist, the younger men are more deferential—no longer the “Hey, Jon, where you go?” of the previous six weeks.  But the little kids still gather around to say hi and hold my hand, and even call me plain old “palagi” when they get overly excited.

Filed in Samoa Travel Log | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Samoa, Matafa’a, April 10, 2012, canoes

Jon Ross on Apr 11th 2012




An unexpected benefit of the project is that the older craftsmen are able to teach all the skills necessary to the next entire generation: selecting the trees, chopping them down, carving, shaping, finishing—it’s like canoe lab 101, 102, 103.

Normally, when only one canoe gets made every couple of years, by one family, the experience is limited.  Making 16 in a matter of weeks has created a crash course for the younger people.  You can already see the guys who are getting it—they have the eye for the line of the hull and the talent for shaving the wood.

With so many canoes, every aspect of construction gets experienced—even calamity.  On a particularly bad day, four canoes developed cracks during transport form the jungle.  The older matai know what to do and are teaching the kids.  Using a putty made from a local nut (of course), they seal the crack, and using modern hardware (scrap metal and brads), they secure the patch.

Preparations are being made for a dedication ceremony, which will include an ava (kava) ceremony and a canoe race, food and dancing, honored guests, and TV (if they can get here).  This is a big moment for the village to get some attention on a national level and Rev. Fepai knows how to take advantage of the opportunity—ultimately to the benefit of the community.

That day will also mark a huge success for MicroAid as we finish yet another project that helps victims of a disaster return to self-sufficiency, and beyond.

Filed in Samoa Projects | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, April 10, 2012, canoes

Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 11th 2012




So the guys tell me they love to play volleyball.  I’ve played some myself, so I think maybe I’ll join them in a pick up game.  The court is a cracked concrete pad with two uprights anchored in tires and a tattered net.  I think, How good could these guys be?

The game is underway when I arrive.  The rag tag group—guys playing six on six, with a seventh woman serving—in their lavalavas and worn out flip-flops looks pathetic; the court is gravely and riddled with small ankle-twisting potholes.  I sit down to watch.

Once again, I am blown away by the physical prowess of the Samoans—this is the best amateur volleyball game I have ever seen, by far!  It’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters.  The game is relentlessly fast paced, about 50 percent faster than in the States.  Everyone plays like they are possessed—perfect digs and bumps; quick sets; back-sets; fake spikes; single, double, and triple blocks; and hitters flying in from all directions.  Spikes are going down so hard that the half-dead ball is careening into the jungle or bouncing off the nearby corrugated-metal houses.  There are precious few unforced errors; even well-blocked spikes get dug back up by lightening reflexes and an uncanny sense of position.

As usual, there is no personal aggrandizement—no “claims” or high-fives (and definitely no pats on the butt)—it’s a team effort.  They are certainly having fun—lots of laughing and high spirits—but only stoicism for individual moves.

Needless to say, I remain a spectator, as my skills are rusty at best, and never up to this standard.  The game goes on for two grueling, sweaty, fun hours.  As the sun begins to set, the players spontaneously scatter for dinner.  (There are no “goodbyes” here—people just walk away.)

One last thing, most of the guys who just put on this extraordinary exhibit of athletic skill and stamina had worked in the jungle carving canoes all day!

Filed in Samoa Travel Log | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Samoa, 2012, Commercial Interruption

Jon Ross on Apr 11th 2012




Cash donations make the MicroAid work possible—helping victims of disasters return to self-sufficiency.  But there are some things that keep ME going—keeping me self-sufficient in the field.

Every morning and throughout the day, I use an electrolyte infused product called Emergen-C.  A powder in a packet poured into a bottle of water that keeps me hydrated and my salts in balance in these hot, humid, sweat-all-day climates.  Alacer Corp. has been donating product to my causes since the Achilles Track Club days, and now supports MicroAid.

Another fantastic comestible is called Primal Strips—meatless “jerky” for us vegans, and non-vegans, alike.  These tasty treats have 7 to 10 grams of protein and supplement my mainly starchy diet (taro, breadfruit, bananas—no beans, grains, legumes, or nuts) in this part of the world.  Primal Spirit Foods discounted the cost of some product for this trip.

Air New Zealand gave us a discount on a ticket to get me here.  Having flown on most of the world’s major airlines, and a lot of it’s minor ones, I can say that Air New Zealand is one of the best.  (Another wonderful airline, Air Pacific, offered a similar discount, but connections and layovers favored the ANZ route, even though the distances were greater.)

Pasefika Inn and Juliana’s Rental Car in Apia, Samoa, both extended substantial discounts for my long-term stay for humanitarian work.

In addition to our financial backers, corporate contributions like these are essential to our work—it keeps our overhead low, and enables me to spend more time in the field helping those in need.  Fafetai to them.

Filed in Samoa Projects,Sponsors | Comments Off on Samoa, 2012, Commercial Interruption

Samoa, Matafa’a, April 2, 2012, canoes

Jon Ross on Apr 3rd 2012



Matafa’a canoe project update 4-2-12:

All trees chopped down and moved to the finishing area in the village.  (Canoe total: 16)

Six canoes finished, awaiting outriggers and paint.

Rev. Fepai and son in finishing room

Canoe dedication ceremony scheduled for Saturday, April 14th.  Big event.  Honored guests and the press invited.  Guys working to meet the deadline.

Filed in Samoa Projects | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, April 2, 2012, canoes

Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 3rd 2012


Matafa’a, Samoa

Hankering for a cup of hot chocolate?  Grab a can from the shelf and scoop out some powder and add water?  Not so fast, American—like everything else here in the village, making a cup of Koko Samoa—a rich, coffee-like brew—is no simple task.  Here’s how you can approximate the experience at home:

Drive to the local jungle and pick some ripe cocoa pods.

This one’s not ripe, yet; they should be banana-yellow.

Slow roast the seeds on a piece of corrugated metal, stirring continuously for 2 hours.

It helps to have someone else doing it with you so you don’t fall asleep from the tedium, heat, and smoke.

Bust out your family-heirloom mortar and pestle—made by your great-grandfather out of a tropical hardwood tree and a stone from the sea.

Pound vigorously for 20 minutes.  (My arm got tired after two.)

Continue until the perfectly roasted beans turn into an oily, sticky paste.

Make a fire with coconut husks and boil a big kettle of water.

Add a few scoops of your cocoa paste and sugar.

And, voila, an easy 4 hours later and you’re ready for a taste of true hot chocolate—easy peasy, Koko Samoa!

Filed in Samoa Travel Log | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Samoa, Salea’a’umua, March 2012, fishing kits

Jon Ross on Apr 3rd 2012




Salea’a’umau village.

When we think of fishing we usually imagine someone casting a line into the water and reeling in their catch.  Here, fishing means swimming under the surface at night and using a spear (in other parts of the world called a “Hawaiian Sling”) to snag your prey, and/or stringing a net across part of the lagoon.

In Samoa, a “fishing kit” is comprised of a mask, snorkel, fins, an underwater light, a spear, 180 meters of fishing net, and a cooler.

The 2009 tsunami washed away the people’s possessions, including their fishing kits—and most have not been replaced.  Now, if a villager wants dinner, they probably have to buy a fish at the market.  And since the villagers don’t really have any cash of their own, they usually end up borrowing money to pay for things—which starts a vicious cycle.

Salea'a'umua women's committee receiving donation

Things in Samoa are very expensive—about two-and-a-half times what they cost in the U.S.—so the likelihood that anyone could put together their own kit is remote.

To help people return to self-sufficiency, MicroAid has donated five fishing kits to the village of Salea’a’umua on the southeast coast of Upolu—the hardest hit area of the 2009 tsunami.

The women’s committee of the village will be in charge of loaning out the kits on a nightly basis, maintaining them, and monitoring their use.  Villagers can even sell extra fish if they catch enough.

This is what MicroAid does: helps people reclaim their independence.

if enough large men in skirts keep giving you one, word to the wise: wear it

There is an old saying: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll sit in a boat and drink beer all day.”

Here, give a man a fishing kit and he’ll catch dinner for his family.

Filed in Samoa Projects | Comments Off on Samoa, Salea’a’umua, March 2012, fishing kits

Samoa, Matafa’a, travel log

Jon Ross on Apr 3rd 2012


One day, Tavae asks me if I want to go to “survivor’s beach.”  Of course, I don’t understand what he’s talking about, because one: I don’t understand what he’s talking about, and two: I don’t watch TV, so I have no idea that they filmed a couple of “Survivor” shows in Samoa.  Well, it turns out that the “Survivor” beach is over the mountain behind the village. You can get most of the way to it by car from the other direction, but from isolated Matafa’a, of course, it’s a rugged climb up steep, muddy jungle trails and then down to the beach.

It also turns out that “Survivor” beach is part of Matafa’a village; Tavae’s grandfather “owns” it—which means, at some point, the village chiefs allotted it to his family.  Feeling pretty strong and adventurous, I say, “Let’s go,” and we make a plan to head off early the next morning—Saturday.  At dawn, we are joined by Tuilagi and his brother-in-law—they say they are going to pick taro and breadfruit, but I think they just want to keep an extra eye on me.

Up the nearly vertical trail behind the village we go—the guys take off their sandals for better barefoot traction in the muck; my Vibram Five Finger booties are serving me well.  Even as he sun is just rising, we are drenched in sweat. These guys have been clambering these trails since they were children and they don’t miss a step; I, on the other hand, occasionally slip or stumble, but am keeping up pretty well.  (Let’s see them make the connection to the shuttle at 42nd Street at rush hour!)

Tavae, Mr. Peanut

Escorting me to the top of the mountain, passing wild mushrooms, jungle peanuts, a few big tropical hardwood trees (Tuilagi says, “Good for canoes, but too heavy”—we are all obsessed with canoes), he and his bro-in-law leave me and Tavae to continue to the beach alone.  (Tuilagi says he is going to collect cocoa pods to make fresh roasted cocoa later. See blog about Koko Samoa: “Samoa Slow.”)

Over the crest and down the other side to one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.  No wonder the “Survivor” people chose the location.  There is even evidence, out on the reef, that there would be good surf if there were a swell.  Considering it took two hours of difficult hiking to get here—it ain’t called “survivor” for nothing—I don’t know if I’d want to try carrying a surfboard, too.  Needless to say, there isn’t another soul within 10 miles… hard miles.

We hang out for a while and swim in the crystal turquoise water, then start the long hike back.  After a rinse and a quick lie-down, I am off to Tuilagi’s to learn how to make cocoa—the Samoa way: starting with the pods.  Koko Samoa, it’s called.

Filed in Samoa Travel Log | Comments Off on Samoa, Matafa’a, travel log